Saturday, August 22, 2015

Patriots To Unveil Big Nickle Base Against Saints

The New England Patriots are set to be the first team in NFL history to employ the Big Nickle as their base defense, and Saturday night's matchup with the high powered New Orleans Saints' offense will provide the fan base with their first real opportunity for a sneak preview.

Despite dumping freakishly athletic tight end Jimmy Graham on the Seattle Seahawks in the offseason, the Saints still possess a group of pass catchers that can give opposing defenses fits and, due to their size advantage against nearly any corners they might match up against, teams that can utilize the three safety concept will be more successful than most against them - but particularly the Patriots' version, as they have a legitimate diamond of a Big Nickle safety in Devin McCourty.
Jordan Richards (l) and Robert McClain are great fits in Patriots' secondary

The star of the Saints' camp thus far in 2015 has been second-year undrafted free agent Brandon Coleman, who at 6' 6" and 225 pounds combines with like-sized veteran Marques Colston and diminutive burner Brandin Cooks to give quarterback Drew Brees a dangerous trio of pass catching talent, with lanky Nick Toon coming on as another tall, speedy option...

...which should be easier to defend given the state of the Saints' running game. Mark Ingram figures to be the equivalent of a lead back for New Orleans, and has also been the passing back in practices while newly acquired and oft-injured C.J. Spiller recovers from his latest malady. Khiry Robinson will benefit from increased snaps with Spiller out, but is reportedly on the trading block - so a lot of touches on Saturday night would probably be akin to the Saints showcasing him.

Spiller has great hands out of the backfield, but he can't catch anything from the trainer's table. Ingram is adequate in the passing game and Robinson is too erratic to really count on - so all things considered, the Patriots can expect Brees to spread them out, giving New England the perfect opportunity to try out their new look secondary.

Unlike the standard nickle defense in which a nickle corner comes into the game in the stead of a slower lumbering linebacker, the Big Nickle instead calls for a hybrid safety to replace the linebacker - and be as New England spends around seventy percent of their snaps in the nickle, it goes to figure that the Big Nickle will translate to the same number.

The Patriots have traditionally employed sure-tackling corners in what has been either a 4-2-5 alignment (four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs) or a 3-3-5, depending on the opposing personnel, but with the release of veteran slot corner Kyle Arrington in the offseason combined with a multitude of off-the-radar signings, the depth chart now suddenly supports the idea of the Big Nickle.

For the uninitiated, the Big Nickle safety must possess the coverage ability of a cornerback to take on an outside receiving threat, with the run support willingness of a strong safety so that the defense doesn't lose that capability by pulling a linebacker from the field. The nickle will normally align at linebacker depth in order to be able to read the play from the box and react accordingly, while the strong safety will key on the opposing running back, leaving the tight end to the strong side linebacker to deal with.

The only downfall to this alignment is that it leaves the free safety as the lone centerfielder - but as the Patriots have benefited from the emergence of Duron Harmon in that role, it frees up newly rich hybrid corner/safety McCourty to reduce down to be the Big Nickle.

Heavy with safety talent, the Patriots philosophy has been constructed through the past three offseasons. In 2012, head ball coach Bill Belichick moved top corner McCourty to free safety, adding Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 draft, Harmon in the third round of the 2013 draft and, after an unsuccessful attempt at reviving the career of former Arizona Cardinals' heavy hitter Adrian Wilson, he brought back former second rounder Patrick Chung last season and drafted underrated Stanford hybrid Jordan Richards in the second round this year...

...and in addition, Belichick brought in corner hybrids Robert McClain and Bradley Fletcher to go along with third-year man Logan Ryan (who was rumored to be switching to safety last season) to give him a pool of eight options to participate in the Big Nickle as hybrid safeties.

There has been evidence of Belichick leaning towards this alignment all off season, as McCourty, Harmon and Wilson have seen time at corner while Chung and Richards have taken turns in the box as true strong safeties. McClain appears to be the top candidate for the slot in either a standard base or in the nickle, giving the team a solid hybrid in that role without having to flip-flop.

But this is all for another time - for now, however, some random thoughts headed into tonight's game:

Time to settle on linebacker depth

Eric Martin, James Morris and Jonathan Freeny lead group of decent linebacker depth that also include Cam Gordon, Darius Fleming and Dekoda Watson. As always, it seems, depth is a primary concern with the Patriots at linebacker, and any of these guys could do themselves a huge favor by having a breakout performance tonight.

Especially under the microscope will be the depth in the middle to back up starter Dont'a Hightower, and players with some versatility to play both inside and out, like Morris, has a huge opportunity in this game. Fleming is purely a strong side edge setter while Watson and Gordon would have to make a roster spot by turning is stellar performances. Martin will likely miss his second straight contest with an undisclosed injury.

Regardless of what happens, the Patriots would be well-advised to settle on their depth early and use the next two games to develop some chemistry with whomever is going to be on the tea,.

Team will likely go run-heavy early to get Blount work

Look for LeGarrette Blount to get some quality reps early as the Patriots offense works off of a scripted game plan, setting up the passing game with it's depleted ranks amongst the pass catchers by establishing the power running game.

Gray will get some work and passing back James White has a golden opportunity to solidify his status as the top option on third down, likely before Dion Lewis, and former Saint Travaris Cadet falls further down the depth chart by probably missing tonight's game with an injury.

Boyce needs to translate strong practices to game nights

Some players are gamers, and some are workout warriors. Josh Boyce needs to be both to make a run at a roster spot.

Boyce was targeted almost exclusively during portions of the team's first preseason game - and the combination of the quarterbacks being under duress and the Patriots' telegraphing their intent did him no favors, so New England must get other options contributing early to lighten the load on Boyce and to make the offense less predictable.

Of course, having any other experienced receivers on the field with him would help immensely, especially if Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski are on the field to take the focus away from not just Boyce, but all of the youngsters trying to make the team.

Boyce has elite speed and is a vertical threat in practice, but that needs to translate to game time.

Tight ends on display

Gronkowski will see some action, but newbie Scott Chandler and converted defensive end Jake Bequette will likely be watching in street clothes, opening the door for undrafted rookie free agent Jimmay Mundine do display his talents.

More like an Hback or even a thick wide receiver, Mundine was the most productive and prolific tight end in the history of the University of Kansas' football program, has decent speed and is a load to bring down at 6' 2" 240. If he is ging to make this team, tonight will have a lot to say about that.

Newly acquired blocking tight end Asante Cleveland may see some action, supplanting Marcus Cannon or Cam Fleming as the sixth offensive lineman on running downs. Cleveland is a long shot to make the roster, competing against entrenched Michael Hoomanawanui, who offers pass catching versatility as well. Still, expect to see a few balls coming Cleveland's way so that the team can assess his value to the offense.

Shoring up run defense

As previously mentioned, the Saints are handicapped in their backfield as far as receiving  talent, but they have a name power back in Mark Ingram.

Brees is going to spread out the Patriots as a result, but having Ingram and Khiry Robinson in the backfield will put some stress on the Patriots' run defense, in particular the Big Nickle safety who is going to have to drop down into run support on occasion.

Dominique Easley had a good week of practice, as did nose tackle Malcom Brown as both seemed to take lessons from last week's up and down performances and looked very stout in joint practices so the middle of the line should be improved - but it remains to be seen if the edge setting on the weak side will improve.

Chandler Jones is more of a pass rusher but he needs to pay attention to the edge as well, something that rookie Geneo Grissom showed in abundance during joint practices. If Grissom continues to show edge setting capability, he could supplant the need for a sixth linebacker on the final roster as a defensive end / weak side linebacker hybrid.

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